I’ve always been skeptical of charter schools given concerns about their unorthodox teaching and disciplinary practices along with a lack of accountability to outside regulation. But beginning in August of this year I was afforded the opportunity to observe some of these concerns in real-time when I began teaching at Elm City Charter Preparatory Middle School in New Haven, CT. My observations and experiences there led me to resign after a week of teaching on Friday September 6, 2013.
While this might appear to simply be a personal matter, I’ve concluded that parents, the educational community, and community activists must understand my own concerns within the context of a larger discussion about charter schools, their discipline and teaching practices, and the future of urban education in America.
As a schoolteacher, youth development specialist and community activist, I’ve been involved in working to empower young people of color since the mid-80s. In this time, I’ve worked exclusively in low-income communities and at low and high-performing schools. But never in my professional career have I felt compelled to resign immediately and without notice from a school due to conflicts with discipline policies and school culture.
My resignation letter read in part:
“Working here prohibits me from pursuing outside interests, getting proper rest, and spending quality time with my friends and loved ones. In effect, this job consumes almost all of my personal time…”
“I experience great internal conflict given my serious concerns about this school’s disciplinary policies which I find overly punitive and in some cases, educationally unsound and potentially damaging to Black and Brown student development. I became an educator in 1997 to empower and help liberate communities of color, not aid in their humiliation or suppression, and I believe “The Den” through its conspicuous use of social exile and segregation, too closely mirrors prison and correctional facilities bent on social control….”
“Perhaps I cannot change this system, but I certainly don’t want to administer it, especially as I believe the last thing Black and Brown students need is to be disconnected and socially exiled in school (especially when that school claims it was created to “close the achievement gap” and “free” such students).”
This school like many other (not all) charter schools, is characterized by the micromanagement of teachers and staff, the use of formulaic and scripted lesson planning, and a seeming obsession with monitoring and controlling students. Stone-faced teachers walk around with clipboards like correctional officers, closely monitoring students during breakfast, lunch, gym, recess, and class time, awarding students one of 8 credits or 1 of 22 deductions.
Students can receive deductions for such trivial acts as combing their hair in class, speaking out of turn, rolling their eyes, sucking their teeth, chewing gum, not sitting in correct posture, not clasping their hands on their desks, or searching for a pen or pencil after class has started. Students are expected to remain silent during much of breakfast and lunch, and to complete worksheets and read books while eating.
By far, the school’s most insidious discipline policy and perhaps the most psychologically damaging to students in the long-term, is “The Den.” The school community likens itself a “wolf pack.” Students who violate particular rules are not acting in harmony with this wolf pack and therefore place themselves in the “den.”
Earning this infamous distinction requires a student to wear a gray-colored t-shirt (students in good standing wear green-colored polo shirts with the school emblem). Students in good standing cannot interact in any way with students wearing gray shirts, even to hand them school materials or help them with work. Students caught doing so are punished with Den status themselves. In addition, “Den” students sit in a separate section of the classroom and cafeteria. Even students with documented behavioral disorders must potentially face this penalty for misbehavior.
Despite the school’s statements to the contrary, what we have here is the use of rigid color-coded segregation as punishment for students whose ancestors fought against skin segregation and social exile decades before them. And everyone from the principal (a Black woman) to the Dean of Students swear they’re committed to empowering Black and Latino children. How’s that for irony? Apparently, I’m not the only one skeptical of such methods because the school’s network, called “Achievement First,” has garnered criticism and parental protest in some of its other schools.
Back to my story. I requested a meeting with the dean of students and the principal to discuss my concerns with this draconian system of discipline. I explained how social isolation and ostracizing students were not educationally sound but demeaning and damaging to Black and Brown minds. I insisted how such heavy-handed measures only occur in schools located within low-income communities of color, and how it was based on racist assumptions of our children as incorrigible and intimidating thugs, destined for gangs and prisons. I explained how every single peer and colleague I told about these practices was outraged and incredulous. My arguments nevertheless fell on deaf (liberal) ears.
I prayed and meditated on the issue and began doing research on charter schools. I came to the conclusion that some of these charter schools were created by white business leaders with no social justice background or agenda. Perhaps they aim to create a future labor pool of skilled workers who don’t complain about or protest their corporate oppression? (Perhaps this is why at my former school when a teacher issues a student a deduction, the only response a student is permitted is
either “Okay,” “I’m sorry,” and “Can we talk about it later?” If a student says or does anything to the contrary, they receive yet another deduction). Maybe the creators of these charter schools are simply poverty pimps taking advantage of poor Black communities with a history of failing schools? Or maybe some of these charter schools are really invested in properly educating children but are innocently misguided? I can’t help but think that many of the white folk that create such penitentiary-style discipline codes subconsciously look upon our children as unruly or innately violent and incorrigible beings that must be “tamed” and controlled at any cost. And these, mind you, are the liberal do-good whites who want to empower poor Black and Latino children through education! One wonders why such repressive tactics are not used with poor and low-performing white students or their wealthy counterparts. But then again, we KNOW why, don’t we?
Whatever the case, parents, educators and community activists must keep a watchful eye on charter schools like those run by Achievement First. Some are certainly providing a quality education and using refreshingly innovative policies and instructional methods. But far too many are employing medieval forms of discipline, micromanaging teachers and robbing them of academic freedom, using elitist and discriminatory methods of admission, financially exploiting poor families, neglecting Black and special needs’ children and draining much needed money and resources from traditional public schools which feature better qualified teachers and more outside regulation.
Certainly there must be a way to educate and discipline children without alienating them, crushing their spirits, and damaging their esteem. My hope is that concerned parents, educators, and activists will report, challenge and dismantle such policies at any school claiming to prepare our children for college, success or empowerment, and remove their children from such schools.
If You Have a Child Enrolled in Charter School:
- Tell your child to inform you if they feel violated or if they observed other children being treated unfairly. Make them feel comfortable telling you the truth about what goes on in school. Often children are afraid to do this.
- To the best of your ability, attend and encourage other parents to attend the school’s parent meetings and raise questions you have about discipline, grading policies, teacher backgrounds,etc. If need be, demand a specific meeting to address your issues
- Make local civil rights and student advocacy organizations and city council members aware of your concerns.
- Visit your child’s school. Sit in classes and observe the school culture for yourself. Take notes about what you like, and what disturbs you.
Agyei Tyehimba is an educator, activist and author from Harlem, N.Y. Agyei is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. In 2013, he wrote The Blueprint: A BSU Handbook, teaching Black student activists how to organize and protest. In April of 2014, he released Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.”
Agyei earned his Bachelor’s Degree in sociology from Syracuse University, his Master’s Degree in Africana Studies from Cornell University, and his Master’s Degree in Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.